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Article

Evaluating Success and Failure in Crisis Management  

Allan McConnell

Crises and disasters come in many shapes and sizes. They range from global pandemics and global financial crises to tsunamis, hurricanes, volcanic ash clouds, bushfires, terrorist attacks, critical infrastructure failures and food contamination episodes. Threats may be locally isolated such as an explosion at a local fireworks factory, or they may cascade across multiple countries and sectors, such as pandemics. No country is immune from the challenge of managing extraordinary threats, and doing so out of their comfort zone of routine policy making. The crisis management challenge involves managing threats ‘on the ground’, as well as the political fallout and societal fears. Populist and journalistic commentary frequently labels crisis management initiatives as having either succeeded or failed. The realities are much more complex. Evaluators confront numerous methodological challenges. These include the careful consideration of multiple and often competing outcomes, differing perceptions, issues of success for whom, and gray areas stemming from shortfalls and lack of evidence, as well as variations over time. Despite such complexity, some key themes appear continually across evaluations, from internal reviews to royal commissions and accident inquiries. These pertain to the ways in which evaluations can be shaped heavily or lightly by political agendas, the degree to which evaluating organizations are able to open up, the degree to which gray areas and shortfalls are stumbling blocks in producing findings, and the challenge of producing coherent investigative narratives when many storylines are possible. Ultimately, evaluating crisis initiatives is “political” in nature because it seeks to provide authoritative evaluations that reconcile multiple views, from experts and lawyers to victims and their families.

Article

The Politics of Cost–Benefit Analysis  

Niek Mouter

Cost–benefit analysis (CBA) is a widely used economic appraisal method that aims to support politicians in making decisions about projects and policies. Several researchers have tried to uncover the extent to which CBA actually impacts decision-making by investigating the statistical relation between the results of CBA studies and political decisions. Although these studies show that there is no significant statistical relation between the outcomes of CBA studies and political decisions, there is clear evidence that the institutionalization of CBA affects the planning and decision-making process within the bureaucracy. Civil servants, for instance, use CBAs to government projects in the early phases of the planning process. The literature identifies various barriers that hamper politicians’ use of CBA when forming their opinion. First, politicians often receive results of CBA studies too late in the process. When politicians receive a CBA after they already made up their mind and communicated their viewpoint, the chance is low that the results of the CBA will (substantially) influence their decision. A second important barrier that limits the use of CBA by politicians is that they do not have enough trust in CBA’s impartiality. A third barrier is that politicians contest value judgments implicit in CBA. The literature distinguishes six ideological value judgments that inevitably need to be made when conducting a CBA: (a) Which individuals have standing in a CBA? (b) Which preferences have standing in a CBA? (c) Which procedure is used to value impacts? (d) On which dimensions are standard numbers differentiated? (e) Which weight is assigned to preferences of individuals in the social welfare function? (f) Which approach is adopted to select the social discount rate? The implication of the fact that CBA analysts cannot escape from making value judgments when conducing the study is that CBA is currently a problematic tool for democratic decision-making because, when applied in practice, the analysis is based on a specific set of politically loaded premises that foster (damage) the interests of politicians (not) endorsing these premises. It is possible to overcome this problem through informing politicians about the extent to which switching value judgements leads to different CBA outcomes. The introduction of so-called normative sensitivity analyses safeguards that politicians with different belief systems are equally equipped to use the results of a CBA to arrive at a well-founded evaluation of a government project.

Article

The Politics of Crisis Terminology  

Allan McConnell

The politics of crisis terminology is rarely examined directly. Crisis is an “umbrella,” under which resides a multitude of terms such as accidents, emergencies, fiascos, disasters, and catastrophes, as well as variations such as natural disasters, transboundary crises, and mega-crises. Yet the sheer diversity and frequent ambiguity among terms reflects the “politics” of how societies and political actors seek to cope with and address extreme events, which often pose a mixture of threat and opportunity. Central to an understanding is how (a) different terms are means of framing issues such as the scale and causes of the crisis, (b) crisis terms are part of governing strategies, and (c) nongovernmental actors (opposition parties, media, lobby groups, social movements, and citizens) can seek to influence government. A pivotal point in developing an understanding of crisis terminology is that rather bemoaning the lack of singular meanings for crisis and associated terms, or criticizing actors for “abuse” of the terms, one should recognize and accept that complex and contested crisis language and definitions are in themselves manifestations of politics in political societies.